An open letter to conference organizers

Let's be honest, I spend a lot of time at conferences. Over the past 2 years or so I've averaged more than one speaking engagement at a conference per month, including a half-dozen keynotes. I've also helped organize several conferences, mostly DrupalCamps and DrupalCons. I'd estimate conferences make up more than a third of my professional activity. (Incidentally, if someone can tell me how the hell that happened I'd love to hear it; I'm still confused by it.)

As a result I've gotten to see a wide variety of conference setups, plans, crazy ideas, and crazy wonderful ideas. There are many wonderful things that conference organizers do, or do differently, and of course plenty of things that they screw up.

I want to take this opportunity to share some of that experience with the organizers of various conferences together, rather than in one-off feedback forms that only one conference will see. To be clear, while I definitely think there are areas that many conferences could improve I don't want anyone to take this letter as a slam on conference organizers. These are people who put in way more time than you think, often without being paid to do so, out of a love for the community, for learning and sharing, and for you. Whatever else you may think about a conference or this list, the next time you're at a conference take a moment to find one of the organizers and give them a huge hug and/or firm handshake (as is their preference) and say thank you for all the work that they do.

The venue

There is, ultimately, one overriding factor that determines who is awake for the first session in the morning. The percentage of attendees who make it to the first session in the morning is inversely proportional to the travel time in minutes from bedroom to session room. That means conference hotels trump everybody. DrupalCon Chicago 2011, Sunshine PHP, and php[tek] rank at the top of the list here.

If that's not viable for whatever reason (often capacity), make sure there's ample mixed-cost housing very nearby. Nearby means "within a 3 minute walk". If I have to take public transit to get there then it's not close. DrupalCon Austin did very well in this regard, with two large hotels and an apartment complex with several AirBNB's literally across the street from the main entrance to the conference center. It's not quite as nice as it being all one building but it's a close second.

Another logistical point: Consider traffic flow. I've been at a number of conferences where lines to go up the escalator or stairs, or to pick up lunch, or whatever else are longer than most sessions. Few things are as discouraging as wanting to go to a session but being stuck in a line of people going to the same session... at the other end of the convention center. Logistics are hard. Don't under-estimate the amount of thought that needs to go into them.

Don't make me pay to speak

This has been covered elsewhere in more detail so I will only touch on it briefly here. Most people come to a conference to see speakers. Speakers are your offering, attendees are your customers. Don't make me, as a speaker, pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to come to your conference to give someone else a reason to buy a ticket from you.

I'm not asking for an honorarium. (I certainly won't turn one down, but I've only ever had one conference offer that.) But cover hard travel costs for speakers. Or even just hotel and a a stipend for airfare up to some amount. Something. A speaker is already giving you 10-40 hours of their time to prepare a session before they even arrive at the conference. Given what most speakers can make in the IT field that means they're donating, on average, somewhere around $3000 USD worth of their time to your conference before they step in the door. Respect that.

That goes double for invited speakers. Few things are as insulting as reaching out to a speaker to specifically invite them to speak on a subject on which they are an expert, and then telling them "and by the way, you're on your own dime to get here". As a conference organizer for DrupalCon I've been turned down by a number of very good speakers because we don't cover speaker travel, and I don't blame them. You won't get the best talent on stage if you're going to make them pay for the privilege.

Curiously, in my experience it's the big conferences that do worst here. The PHP community conferences tend to be very good in this regard. Big industry vertical conferences often don't even comp tickets for speakers, which is even worse and makes me want to avoid them. Really, the only reason I'd speak under such conditions is as a marketing expense. Do you want your speakers treating you purely as a marketing expense rather than community building?

I will give the very small < 100 person local conferences a pass here, but once you pass around 300-400 attendees you need to treat your speakers better. I've started avoiding conferences that won't cover my travel costs.

Scavenger hunts

A few small to medium conferences have started doing something quite clever with their sponsors. I think php[tek] was the first, and I've seen Sunshine PHP do it as well. All attendees need to get some kind of "check off" from sponsors, or just top-level sponsors with booths. At php[tek] 2014, for example, attendees who got a (fairly high quality) pin from each of the top sponsors were entered into the end-of-conference raffle for a fairly good array of prizes. At Sunshine PHP this year, attendees who had a stamp on their bingo card from all sponsors with tables got a limited edition yellow ElePHPant, Sunny. At Sunshine PHP last year each sponsor visit was worth a raffle ticket as was each question asked in a session of a presenter. Sunshine PHP also had a bonus for the best tweet of the Sunny the ElePHPant around the conference, which encouraged interaction and shenanigans amongst attendees.

Some sponsors just want to give a sales pitch in return for whatever the checkbox is; others want some small social networking stunt ("tweet at us"), or signing up for a free dev account with their service, or whatever. Always fairly simple and reasonable. But it gives attendees a reason to go to the sponsor area (which sponsors love) and to stick around to the end of the conference for the raffle (which organizers love), and a way to get cool free stuff (which attendees love). It probably won't scale to very large conferences like DrupalCon or OSCON or SXSW, but for the < 500 market it's a really nice touch.

On stage

I've had a wide variety of audio options when speaking, from fixed microphones to hand-held mics to wireless lapel mics. Far and away my preference is for something hands-free and mobile. Headset, lapel clip, doesn't matter. I want to be able to move around and I want to have one hand free for a pointer and the other to gesticulate. A hand-held mic means I am walking around two-fisting electronics (feeling and looking like a dork) while a fixed podium mic means I am chained to one spot where no one an see anything but my head. Let me have the freedom to move and I'm able to give a better presentation. I'd rather speak without a microphone than be chained down.

At the same time, though, let me see my slides. This one was a novel experience for me at DrupalCon Austin, where as a presenter the projector screen was situated such that I could not actually see my own slides. I had them on a laptop in front of me, but many laptop/projector setups force you to use only one display so the projector is the only output (which you often don't know until you plug in). Or I may have speaker notes on my laptop screen instead. Or, as is the case for me, I use a laser pointer to highlight portions of a slide or code sample. If I can't see the screen then I can't do that. That was a rather unpleasant surprise when I started speaking and realized I had to change my plan on the fly. (And no, mouse pointers are not a substitute.)

Let me move, let me see my slides, and give me the room to present, not just talk. It really does affect the energy of the talk very significantly.

Edit, as James Watts reminded me of in the comments: Another "little thing" that matters? Water. The last thing a presenter should be thinking about is tracking down water to drink during the talk. There should be either a pitcher of water and cups or water bottles ready and waiting for every presenter as soon as they get to the stage. I've been at (even large) conferences where, for whatever reason, I had to ask one of the attendees to track down water for me from a water fountain 300 feet away from the session room while I setup my laptop because there wasn't anything closer. Please, this is an easy one. Don't forget the water.

A/V

It's been a while since I've had trouble with A/V at a conference. It almost always works, give or take some fiddling. I do, however, occasionally run into a conference that hasn't tested their A/V properly. The biggest challenge? Open Source conferences that only test their A/V with Macs, not with Linux systems. The irony there is palpable. :-) Most laptops in the world still run Windows. In the odd microcosm that is the Open Source world the closed-source Mac OS X is oddly supreme, though. Linux laptops, in my experience, are a strong second. Most of the top-selling laptops on Amazon these days are Chromebooks (Linux). Organizers, please test your A/V setups before I arrive. I can't be the only person with a Linux system at a developer conference.

A few conferences I've been to have asked me to give them slides to present from the conference's laptop. My answer to that is always the same: No. I have my own presenter remote, my own laptop, and I am not using Apple Keynote. Addendum by George DeMet in the comments: I may also be using a non-standard font that I have on my laptop that is not on the conference laptop. That means I often cannot simply dump my slides on a USB key for you and use a strange remote that may or may not work. (Yes, I've had the conference-provided remote fail on me.) It's especially problematic when that is not communicated until I arrive in the room to present.

Fortunately very few conferences I've been to have made this mistake, so to the majority of you who just provide a VGA cable and power outlet that works first-try, thank you!

Recording sessions

I know there's some difference of opinion on this point amongst various speakers so I won't claim my position to be universal, but my stance is this: Please record my session and please give it away!

I present, most of the time, as a form of teaching. I want to share knowledge with as many people as possible. I want to educate. I want to communicate. Recording and sharing session videos — whether it's just slides or a video of me as well — is a way to reach a broader audience than just the 30 people in the room. That includes other attendees of the conference who are in another session in that time-slot. Don't leave them out in the cold!

It also helps me to be able to review my sessions later. I often give the same talk numerous times and being able to review what worked, what didn't, see which jokes fell flat and which slides I stumbled over myself (always a bad sign) is extremely helpful.

The undisputed king on this point is DrupalCon. Recent DrupalCons routinely have decent quality screen-and-audio recordings up in a matter of hours. That's awesome. You don't need to go quite that far but having videos up within, say, a week is very appreciated.

A few conferences do record sessions but then sell access to them, either to attendees or free-for-attendees but paid for everyone else. I can totally understand the financial reasons to do that. So I'll make you a deal: If you charge money for recordings of my session then I want a cut. If not, let me know that you're doing that before I submit a session so I know not to submit one.

After-parties

Conference-sponsored parties are a somewhat controversial subject in some circles. They can be great for socializing and serve as an extended hallway track, but depending on the type of party they can also drive off certain members of the community (due to age, social preference, or alcohol preference) or (due to large quantities of alcohol) increase the chances of the conference ending up as one of too-many negative stories. Some conferences have done away with them as a result, which is rather unfortunate.

There's two ways I've seen after-parties done well: Big and small. For big, the winner is DrupalCon Chicago. The after-party on the first night of the conference was a sit-down dinner for 800 people at the Field Museum of Natural history in Chicago (Warning: Drupal site and Palantir.net client), followed by a local band playing in the main hall. The acoustics weren't great, but it was overall a classy event and gave people who wanted a bit more quiet the opportunity to wander through the public exhibits of one of the top natural history museums in the country. That's great for large groups but can also be quite expensive.

The important key, though, is that it was large enough to handle the crowd. I've been at other conferences where the after-party (also held at a museum) consisted of two really long lines for drinks, a little bit of finger food, and no room to sit down or talk to people. By the time I got through a line for drinks it was nearly time to leave. No, I'm not kidding. Hosting a party is just as much of a logistical challenge as the conference itself; if you're not up to that challenge then it's better to just not have one at all.

For smaller conferences, Lonestar PHP is the reigning champion in my mind. Their after-party consists of a bunch of tables in the main conference venue (the keynote room), a huge pile of board games and card games, a game console with Dance Dance Revolution or similar, and a small bar in the corner with both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. It gives drinkers a chance to drink (without being frat-party-hammered) and non-drinkers something else to do and a reason to stick around other than getting drunk. It's well-lit and quiet enough that those who hate loud spaces like bars (myself included) are not driven away. It's even family-friendly. (A number of conference attendees and speakers like to bring their spouse/kids along, which is great to see.) There's even food, albeit usually not enough. (Conference-goers and locusts often have a lot in common.) Well done, Lonestar.

Twin Cities DrupalCamp is a very close second, as they have a very similar setup. The only downside is it's not in the same venue so it requires a little travel. A number of other conferences have started moving to similar plans, which is great. DrupalCon now has a regular trivia night (although if you're not drinking it can be very slow moving) and Symfony Live tends to have a Jeopardy night hosted by Jeremy Mikola. These are all inclusive, friendly, non-frat-party social options. Props to those conferences that have gotten this right, and those that haven't yet... please start. A loud kegger is not a good after-party.

Encourage the hallway track

Conferences are a wonderful educational opportunity. They do not replace training or mentoring but they can provide a "structured taste" of something new: a platform, a system, a technique, or a concept.

As is often said, though, the "hallway track" is where the real conference is. The out-of-session meetings, lunch table conversations, and chance encounters are where the deep learning happens. Encourage those. Provide space for impromptu discussions. (Some conferences call these BoFs, for "Birds of a Feather". I've never understood the term but meh.) Setup lunch so that people have to sit together and talk, and can hear each other talk. Encourage speakers and non-speakers to hang out together and chat informally.

Even as a seasoned speaker I've had random lunch conversations that have turned into new friends, ideas for articles, or even a deeper understanding of the material I'm about to present. (More on that another time.) You can't force that sort of outcome of course, but to the extent possible provide a fertile ground for it. That, in the end, is what conferences are: A fertile ground for learning and connection and mixing to happen.

Thank you, organizers, for all that you do.

Comments

Merit Badges!

The scavenger hunt for php|tek 2012 has still been my favorite of all. We gave merit badges to all of the sponsors that you got by talking to them. Then speakers could give a badge if you asked a question in their session and we gave out separate badges for Uncon participation, hackathon hacking, and a few other special ones. It's rare but I still see those badges lurking about sometimes. We duplicated it at TwilioCon that year.

Sunshine PHP 2013

Yep. Sunshine 2013 did the same. (That's the first time I was exposed to it.) It was surprisingly engaging for something so simple. I still have my Sunshine badges around here somewhere...

Great suggestions for conference organizers!

These are all great. Two more items I'd add:

  • Have a green room or other designated quiet space for speakers to go through their slides before their presentation, make any last-minute adjustments, and just generally get in the right frame of mind. This room should have a conference volunteer available to answer questions and make sure the speaker gets to the right place on time for their presentation.
  • Another good reason not to make speakers present from the conference's laptop is that many folks use custom typefaces for their presentation that might not be installed on the conference machine.

Good point!

I'd forgotten about the font issue, but that's a good one, too. I've added it to the article above. Thanks!

A Sponsor's View

I've handled conference logistics as a sponsor for a few years and just wanted to note that OSCON and Velocity (another O'Reilly con of several thousand people) both have scavenger hunt games. Sponsors pay $5000-$10000 for a button or trading card that's part of a set. If attendees collect the set they're entered to win an exclusive prize. Sponsors are NOT allowed to scan badges or generate leads from people who want to get the collectible, and we in particular never made people listen to our sales pitch. If sponsors go into that sort of sponsorship with an understanding that it's better for brand recognition instead of lead generation I think it becomes a lot more fun and enticing for attendees. They're not forced to listen to something they don't care about and after the conference they aren't spammed about a service they were never interested in.

As for parties, we sponsored a few and found something that worked well for us. To avoid catastrophic drunken shenanigans, we limited the number of drinks we would sponsor (typically 2-3 per person) and tried to find establishments that were higher end with more expensive drinks. As a result, the people who just wanted to get hammered found somewhere else to be after their tickets ran out. Establishments will usually cut a sponsor a deal on drinks if they agree to a minimum tab amount or minimum drink order so you're not paying full price like the attendees would be. For food we've told places to just keep the finger foods coming -- running out of food is almost the equivalent of running out of beer at a drink-up imo. Lines usually aren't a problem if the establishment has multiple stations set up. O'Reilly is really good about setting up stations all over when they have events in the expo halls too.

Sorry to ramble, I just wanted to add a sponsor's view. When I attend conferences I like to see some of the things you mentioned as well. I absolutely appreciate when conferences post videos online so I can see talks from conferences I couldn't attend. I loathe when these are behind a paywall. I understand wanting to recoup costs but it really makes the conference seem all about money rather than community. If video access must be sold, at least set a reasonable price. I'm with you on giving a cut to the speaker and think they should have a say in whether their videos are PPV/free.

As someone who runs a 300-400

As someone who runs a 300-400 person conference, CapitalCamp & GovDays, it's really hard for us to try to sponsor speakers. Don't get me wrong, we would love to do it in order to grab great speakers from all over the world but budgets are incredibly tight.

Most Drupalcamps are less

Most Drupalcamps are less than $50, and even though we get away with doing it that cheap, I do think its important for the larger ones to at least pay your keynotes so they don't end up losing money.

If you're going to have 300 people, it would only be a $5 ticket price increase to pay two keynotes both $750. Even after you give them that, its still going to be break-even for them after they get their airfare, hotel, and food. Personally, I think this is fair.

-Mike

My biggest complaint at

My biggest complaint at conferences seems to be a universal problem: poor audio setups in session rooms. There's either a lot of feedback because speakers use poor mic technique (in the case of handhelds and podiums) or the system has too much gain (in the case of lapels and headsets). And especially in the case of podiums (and often handhelds when the speaker is afraid to properly use the mic), there's too much dynamic range.

Easy (and simple) solution to 99% of those issues: a compressor and gate in the signal chain. Considering that many conferences rent their AV equipment, it's not that big of an additional expense. In most markets a rental of a standard dbx compressor/gate would likely run under $50/room for the week, especially if it's part of the rental package for the main stage. (If it's much more than that, rider-friendly equipment might even be cost-effective to purchase used then resell afterward.) A compressor set up so that all but the softest voices are driving the signal into compression with the gate set a little bit below that will solve almost all of the room issues with mics and result in better audio on the recording.

Someone just taking a few minutes when setting up rooms to ring out each room would also help quite a bit. Considering that in most rooms I've been in it's been the same feedback tone in that room regardless of the speaker, the standard low-shelf/mid-sweep/high-shelf setup used on the equipment I've seen in those rooms is enough to help there.

I've been half-tempted before when going to speak at a conference, camp, or whatever to just bring my own 2U rack for my session with a wireless headset and a compressor/gate.

A few minor thoughts

My only complaint with DrupalCon Chicago's after party is that it was too loud, you had to go into the museum exhibit corridors to be able to hold a conversation with someone. That said, hanging out with Sue was awesome :) The after party in Denver was a joke - it was a typically overly loud nightclub, not something I'd have wasted money on had I realized in advance what it would be. I haven't been to Drupalcon since to see if it has improved.

As a general rule I've found most Drupalcamps focus too much on "after party == time to get drunk". At DrupalCamp NH 2013 we tried to to promote the fact that there would an ice-cream bar for those who wanted it, i.e something other than alcohol. While we had a small turn-out (~90), it seemed to be appreciated.

That was intentional

At DrupalCon Chicago, we booked the entire ground floor of the museum (including exhibition space) so that people who wanted to have quiet conversations would have a space to do that, while folks who wanted to listen to loud music and dancing could do that in the main corridor. In my experience, the best conference parties are the ones that have both.

Some minor things

I'm the organizer of CakeFest, the annual CakePHP conference. Based purely on experience over the past years, I would probably add that it's also vital to clarify the channels of communication, for both the speakers as well as the attendees. Things like who is responsible for what, where to go for this or that, who handles technical issues, etc.

Other minor things relating to speakers would be to provide and consider essentials, like a bottle or two of room temperature water (not cold, it's bad for the throat and extensive speaking), maybe a notepad and pens, check that there are no blinding lights, etc.

Since last year I've made it a "thing" to reach out to the speakers and attendees a day or two before the event, to present myself as the conference organizer and offer a little orientation as to the event, as well as the location. I also think that helps everyone feel welcome, even before the event has started.

My 2 cents.

Water!

Gah, I can't believe I forgot to add that one! Yes, that's another one that some conferences inexplicably forget.

I'll add another paragraph on that one. Gah, stupid stupid Larry...

Recordings

Thanks so much for the awesome feedback. One item I would challenge though is charging for recordings. Though we did not charge for the few recordings we managed to get at SunshinePHP, I can understand doing this if cost dictated. Hiring a company to do recordings typically runs $12,000 or more. It is hard financially not to try and get some of that money back. So giving speakers a cut might not be possible.

Oh, Linux

"I can't be the only person with a Linux system at a developer conference."

You're not alone, Larry. I've had so much trouble with my Ubuntu laptop. Yes, Linux is quirky, but there are plenty of projector setups in this work that I can plug and play. At least I've had a lot of practice having to perform with grace in the face of technical difficulties?

Solidarity.

Linux represent!

One of the weirdest I had was one conference where the video recording system was what didn't work. Plugging my laptop into the monitor directly was fine. Going through the recording system didn't. We had to just bypass the recording for that session... and for every presenter with a Linux system at that conference, which wasn't a small number.

I still don't know how that actually happened, but it's the sort of thing no conference organizer should be surprised by.

I remember at one DrupalCamp

I remember at one DrupalCamp where my Linux computer would not speak to the A/V system. We ended up hooking a mac up to the A/V, then creating a Google Hangout between my laptop and that mac, so that the mac showed the Google Hangout on the system. It worked, but it was ridiculous!

"Don't make me pay to speak"

"Don't make me pay to speak" I agree with you.